In the mid-to-late-1930s, any American aircraft company worth its salt realised that there were major opportunities opening for selling military planes, particularly new fighters. War was raging in Asia between China and Japan, and that had provided reasonable markets for exports. But now with Fascism and Nazism on the rise and Europe headed towards war, it was obviously going to be a sellers’ market.
The prize was to get orders from either the UK, France or – even better – the United States, but just about every European nation, of all sizes, desperately wanted modern fighters. So American manufacturers rushed to produce designs. One of these was the Los Angeles-based Vultee Aircraft.
Theoretically, Vultee had both a great concept and design team for the project. The company’s head designer was Richard Palmer, who in the early 1930s had designed the Hughes H-1B that had set the world airspeed record in 1935. Now Palmer’s team set about using the same design principles and experience that had built the world’s fastest plane and applying it to a family of military aircraft.
The idea evolved to build both trainers and fighters all using as many major component parts as possible. This would maximise both production capacity and minimise manufacture and operational costs.
Four designs would be created – the BC-51 basic combat trainer, the B-54 advanced trainer, the BC-54D basic trainer and the V-48 fighter. Essentially the four designs all used the same basic manufacture tooling and used the same aft fuselage, tail assembly and largely the same wings.
Of the trainers only one was adopted in numbers, the BC-54D, which became the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) BT-13 Valiant trainer series, and an impressive nine-and-a-half-thousand were built.
With work on designing the trainers completed, in 1938 Vultee went to work on creating the fighter variant. This aircraft, the Model 48, had a steel-tube semi-monocoque fuselage, had a metal skin (except for the control surfaces) and had a fully retracting undercarriage.
Armament was settled on as being six .30-calibre machine guns – two in the nose and four in the wings. Again, this all put the Model 48 as a thoroughly modern fighter aircraft for the time. The one anomaly in the design was the nose.
Vultee selected the Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial that produced 1,200hp as powerplant – logical as that was a standard fit for many contemporary American fighter designs. But they thought they could improve performance by fitting a novel cowling that was intended to improve the aircrafts streamlining. This gave the original V-48 prototype an appearance more akin to an aircraft fitted with a liquid-cooled, inline engine.
The long and pointed cowling required a lengthened drive shaft and engine cooling was achieved with a retractable air intake behind the propeller spinner.
The aircraft first flew in September 1939 and problems became apparent. The novel cowling didn’t prove particularly efficient, and in fact led to considerable problems with engine cooling.
A second prototype was completed with a normal cowling fitted and this would set the standard for the aircraft. First flying on the 11th of February, 1940, this aircraft, designated the V-48X, demonstrated a maximum speed of 358mph (576kp/h) and a climb rate 3,300 feet/minute (c.1000m/minute).
The aircraft demonstrated some instability issues and an increase in the size of the tail was made to resolve this. But even before the V-48X was flown, Vultee’s gamble on a market opening appeared to prove correct. On 6th of February, 1940, the Swedish Air Force placed an order for 144 V-48C fighters.
These had an improved version of the Twin Wasp engine fitted with the conventional cowling. Armament was composed of two .50-calibre Browning heavy machine guns mounted above the engine and four .30-calibre guns in the wings.
Of course, adding all the equipment needed for combat use put the weight up and despite the improved engine, performance suffered. Maximum speed was 340 mph (just under 550kp/h) at 15,000 feet, initial climb rate was 2520 feet per minute (768 m/min) and service ceiling was 28,200 feet (c.8,600 m).
Production began of the aircraft and by September 1940 the first of these were ready. But here things took a turn. The US State Department placed an embargo on the delivery.
Sweden was just too close geographically to Nazi Germany and seeing as what had happened to Denmark and Norway, the US government was keen to avoid modern aircraft potentially falling into the wrong hands.
But they were quite happy to supply them to other allies, and so the whole production run, which was still ongoing, was offered to the British Royal Air Force.
The RAF had already assessed the V-48 and decided against purchasing it. In their opinion it wasn’t up to combat against current German designs, but with few options and in need of aircraft, the British decided to take on one hundred of the V-48C as advanced trainers for use in Canada.
Now, I have to address the naming of the aircraft as “Vanguard” because I have seen three different versions of where the name originated. Some sources state that the name was given by Vultee during their sales pitches. At least one I have read attributes it to the Swedish Air Force when they ordered the V-48C. Others state that the name was given by the RAF, who designated the aircraft as the Vanguard Mk.I.
To be honest, I can’t say for sure which of these is correct, but I strongly suspect it was the RAF.
At the time the British named their weapon systems whereas American producers tended to go with alphabetic/numeric designations. That’s not to say that Vultee didn’t name the aircraft as part of their sales effort, it would just appear to be unusual if they did, especially as other designs they built didn’t get company names but used “V-number” designations.
It also seems unlikely that the Swedes would use an English name for their designation, and they actually designated the V-48C as the J-10 rather than naming it.
Anyway, the Vanguards didn’t see any use with RAF training units in Canada, because the Americans quickly found they had someone else in more need. The Republican Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek were even more desperate to get fighter aircraft, and in April 1941 the US allowed the creation of the American Volunteer Group to go and assist them.
The Vultee fighter might not be rated as worth using in Europe, but for the Chinese it would be a boon. So, in May 1941 the British agreed that their aircraft could go to the Chinese, while the United States would complete the remaining 44 of the order for supply.
These were intended to equip the proposed 3rd American Volunteer Group and it was now that the aircraft finally received its official designation, becoming the P-66. Production of the outstanding order carried on…and then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The United States was thrown into a panic, and the expectation of an imminent Japanese invasion meant that every available aircraft was pressed into service. And that included about fifty P-66s sitting at airfields in California awaiting shipment to China.
Issued to the 14th Pursuit Group they were used for the air defence of southern California. The pilots there reported favourably on the new fighter, describing it as having excellent aerobatic qualities and superior to the Curtiss P-36 Hawks many of them had flown previously.
But the P-66 proved somewhat delicate, and it also tended to ground-loop which led to an extremely high accident rate. In fact, in the course of its service with the United States as an emergency fighter, fifteen would be written off due to this. The pilots also reported that the cockpit layout was poor, and several injured themselves on sharp edges.
With the gradual reduction in fears of a Japanese invasion, plus the war now raging out in the Pacific, the P-66s were once again allocated to be sent to China. These were sent via Karachi, then in British India.
A number were lost enroute, and others were destroyed during testing in Karachi, including some lost in the hands of Chinese pilots who had difficulty switching to the type initially. As a result it is a little uncertain how many actually got to China, but best estimate I’ve seen is around eighty.
These would go into action from August 1943 onwards in the hands of Republic pilots, but they did not distinguish themselves. Indeed, they suffered badly at the hands of Japanese fighters.
The P-66 was, after all, an aircraft of 1939 that had been in a form of limbo for four years. Considered marginal even in then by the RAF, by 1943 the P-66 was definitely showing its design age and the fact it had had zero further development.
The aircraft’s one perceived air combat advantage, its agility, was surpassed by the Ki-43 Oscar that was the mainstay of the Japanese Army Air Force at the time.
Many were lost to Japanese air raids and, to compound the issue, several were also shot down by Chinese air defences when they were mistaken for Japanese raiders. All this, plus the limited numbers constructed, meant they were very rapidly removed from service, being replaced by the end of 1943 after only a few months of combat usage by later aircraft, principally P-40 Warhawks.
There is some mystery as to what eventually happened to the aircraft. But it seems that they were stored by the Republicans as an emergency reserve for future usage. Unfortunately, they are reported to have stored in caves in Western China where, when they were examined for possible use against Communist forces in 1947, they were found to be derelict.
No reliable record seems to exist of what then happened to the survivors, but it seems likely that they were eventually broken up. Of course, it is possible that somewhere in China, in a musty cave, some relic of the P-66 still lingers. But I wouldn’t go holding my breath on that.